DSP Comments for OSB “River to the Sea” Case

Earlier this month, the Oversight Board requested public comments on whether and how the phrase “from the river to the sea” should be restricted on Facebook and Instagram, based on appeals filed about three different uses of the phrase that Meta decided did not violate any of its policies.

We agree that the content in question did not violate Meta policies, nor does Meta have any obligation to remove it under international human rights law, and offer some suggestions for the Board’s policy recommendations to Meta. Our full comment is below.


At the Dangerous Speech Project, an independent research team, we are experts in identifying content that increases the risk that people will condone or commit violence against members of another group. We have long practice in distinguishing such “dangerous speech” from content that is offensive, hateful, or objectionable in other ways. We are also familiar with Meta’s policies on Hate Speech, Violence and Incitement, and Dangerous Organizations and Individuals, having advised Meta and Facebook staff as they wrote and revised them.

In this comment we offer relevant observations about discourse, especially inflammatory and hateful language. We also report, as the Board requested, on current uses of the phrase “from the river to the sea”, and on online and offline harms related to its use. FInally we offer recommendations.

Observations on discourse

1. Words and phrases are not inherently dangerous – or even hateful. Their meaning and their capacity to inspire human reactions of all kinds, including fear and violence, always depend on the context in which people read or hear them. That includes other speech or content shared alongside them, and other uses of the same words or phrases to which the same audience has been exposed. To fully understand the meaning and power of the phrase “from the river to the sea” each time it is used, it must be analyzed with as much of its context as possible.

Though in this case the Board presents three examples of posts in which the phrase was posted, it hasn’t provided enough contextual information to analyze all of them adequately. For instance the Board’s description of the case omitted the contents of the video in the first example.

The phrase itself, outside a particular context or post, is not actionable under any of Meta’s policies, as discussed in more detail below, nor does Meta have international human rights obligations to ban it.

2. It is easy to confuse people’s fear that others might react violently to language, with the language’s capacity to make others actually react that way. In this case, especially since the “river to the sea” phrase has become a lightning rod for angry debate over Israel and Gaza and a sign of strong sympathy for Palestinians, some Jewish people are afraid that “from the river to the sea” will incite Palestinians and their supporters to attack Israel, Israelis, and Jews. That fear is a harm, but it isn’t a sign that the speech makes such attacks significantly more likely. Nor is it an indication that use of the phrase – in general or in the three examples at issue – violates any of the three Meta policies or its human rights obligations.

Current uses of the phrase

In a review of recent data from dozens of social media platforms, we found a wide variety of uses of the phrase, which reinforces our view that it cannot be said to have any particular meaning or impact, on its own.

It is usually written or chanted as part of a couplet, “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” but many posts and comments replace the second phrase. In many cases it’s antisemitic (“Palestine will be Jew free”) and in other instances, anti-Palestinian (“there won’t be a Palistinian to be seen” [sic]). The phrase is also being used to criticize campus protests, and university administrators’ crackdowns on them (“from the river to the sea, campus speech will not be free”) and to discredit and demonize protestors. It is frequently used as fodder in the conflict between the political right and left in the United States. Some people have even compared the phrase with one from the U.S. national anthem, “from sea to shining sea,” usually to argue that it would be foolish to ban “from the river to the sea.”

It is true, as those who urged Meta to take down the phrase argue, that Hamas uses it. In light of its widespread and diverse use, including by thousands of non-Hamas protestors in the United States, it cannot be considered language that belongs to Hamas or, when used, evidently expresses pro-Hamas views. Based on all this, it would be a mistake to generalize about its meaning or impact.

Harms related to use of the phrase

As noted above, the phrase is frightening to many Israelis and their supporters including some Jewish people, who understand it as a grave threat, a call for “erasure of the Jewish state” in the words of Brandeis University President Ronald Liebowitz, who banned a chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine, in part because they used the phrase. Fear is a significant harm. However we are not aware of violence that was incited using the phrase since the awful Hamas attacks on Israel, on October 7 of last year.


From what we know of the three posts at issue, Meta was correct not to take them down, under its own community standards and under international human rights law. They did not apparently violate the rule against hate speech since the phrase does not constitute a “hate speech attack” in any of three three uses described.

Nor is it “language that incites or facilitates violence and credible threats to public or personal safety,” as far as we know. The phrase neither names nor targets any identity group. Those who call for removing or banning the phrase, like Prof. Liebowitz, understand it as a call to obliterate Israel and its Jewish population since Palestine could not be made to extend from the Jordan river to the Mediterranean sea without displacing Israel. Their fear was greatly increased by the indiscriminate massacre of more than 1,000 Israelis, mainly civilians, on October 7.

However, for applying the Violence and Incitement policy, the question is not what effect the phrase has on Israeli or Jewish people, but what effect it has on people most likely to react with violence. To understand that, Meta should study the responses of other users to speech on its platforms that includes this phrase.

Finally, though Hamas is a dangerous organization in Meta’s sense of that term, the case description does not indicate that the “river to the sea” phrase was posted by a dangerous organization or individual, nor presented in a way that glorified or offered support to Hamas, in any of the three instances.

Unless there is contextual information that undermines this analysis, we urge the board to uphold Meta’s decision not to take down the phrase in all three cases.

Finally, we suggest that the Board offer examples of uses of the “river to the sea” phrase that would be actionable, and explain why, to distinguish them from non-actionable examples like the ones in this case.